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Syrian President Assad invited to join Arab leaders in Riyadh summit

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Saudi Arabia intends to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League summit to be held in Riyadh in May, three sources familiar with the plans said Sunday.

The decision would formally end Syria’s regional isolation in the wake of the country’s decades-long civil war.

Two sources said that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan will travel to Damascus in the coming weeks to hand Assad an official invitation to attend the summit scheduled for May 19.

The Saudi government liaison office and the two countries’ foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

Jamal Rushdi, spokesman for the Secretary-General of the League of Arab States, said that the organization is not aware of every step at the bilateral level between Arab countries.

“We are not supposed to be notified in advance of the supposed visit,” he added.

Assad’s attendance at the Arab League summit represents the most significant development in his rehabilitation within the Arab world since 2011, when Syria was suspended from the organization.

Assad was boycotted by many Western and Arab countries over his brutal crackdown on protests – violence that led to a protracted civil war.

Syria’s return to the 22-member body will be mostly symbolic, but it reflects a change in the regional approach to the Syrian conflict. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the war, which attracted many foreign powers, dividing the country.

Last month, sources told Reuters that Riyadh and Damascus had reached an agreement to reopen their embassies after the holy month of Ramadan.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry did not confirm that an agreement had been reached but said it was in talks with the Syrian Foreign Ministry to resume consular services.

One of the three sources said discussions have been underway for more than a year about a list of demands from Saudi Arabia that the Syrian government meet as a condition of repairing relations, including close cooperation on border security and drug trafficking.

One of the sources said that the initial discussions regarding Prince Faisal’s visit to Damascus or the visit of Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Miqdad to Riyadh were postponed due to the earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria in February.

Egypt, a heavyweight in the Arab League, has also resumed contact with Assad. The two sides agreed to boost cooperation on Saturday during the first official visit by a Syrian foreign minister to Cairo in more than a decade.

An Egyptian security source told Reuters that the visit aims to take steps for Syria’s return to the Arab League, with Egyptian and Saudi mediation.

Some countries, including the United States and Qatar, have opposed normalizing relations with Assad, citing his government’s brutality during the conflict and the need to see progress toward a political solution in Syria.

Contacts between Saudi and Syrian officials gained momentum after a landmark agreement in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Assad’s main backer, to restore relations.

The rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran is part of a major regional realignment, amid rising tensions between Iran and Israel.

The Syrian Ministry of Defense said that Israeli forces carried out air strikes on sites in the Syrian province of Homs in a raid early Sunday morning, while Western intelligence sources said that a series of air bases in central Syria where Iranian personnel are stationed were hit.

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